Probation service: ‘Alarming’ staffing crisis threatens future of organisation, City Hall warns

A review into the handling of killer Jordan McSweeney, 29, found that he was wrongly assessed as “medium risk” before he went on to sexually assault and murder Zara Aleena in June 2022.

An “alarming” staffing crisis at London’s probation service is threatening the future of the organisation, a shock City Hall report has warned.

The London Probation Service - responsible for supervising high-risk offenders on their release from prison - recorded a total of 755 vacancies across the organisation, in August 2022.

Agency staff costs to fill gaps amounted to £367,628 in April 2022, which is more than double the spend of any other region’s service.

A review into the handling of killer Jordan McSweeney, 29, found that he was wrongly assessed as "medium risk" before he went on to sexually assault and murder Zara Aleena in June 2022.

The service, created 18 months ago, has now been investigated by the London Assembly’s police and crime committee, which warned staff shortages are having a detrimental impact.

Flowers left in tribute to Zara Aleena. Photos: Wes Streeting MP and Met Police

The capital’s probation service is facing a “stark” series of issues including:

  • Probation staffing crisis threatens the future viability of the service;
  • “Stark” challenges to recruitment and retention requiring creative solutions;
  • Staff struggle to advise courts, limiting appropriate and effective sentencing;
  • Black, Asian and minority ethnic people face significant challenges on probation;
  • And fears the service is not ensuring equitable treatment and outcomes for people.

Police and crime committee chairman Susan Hall said: “With a caseload of over 38,000 people, we recognise probation staff have an overwhelmingly demanding and complex job.

“The number of vacancies is alarming. Staff shortages pose a threat to the success of the service, with a staggering cost of filling gaps with agency staff in the meantime.”

The Ministry of Justice says it aims to enrol 1,500 new probation officers by March 2023 and secured additional recruitment funding for the London Probation Service, with annual salary increases.

Jordan McSweeney, 29, pleaded guilty of murdering Zara Aleena. Credit: Met Police

The report, published Friday, January 20, recommends measures including:

  • A large-scale recruitment campaign backed by the LPS, City Hall and the mayor;
  • Additional temporary basic salary payments or an uplift to London weighting;
  • Improved referral pathways for prison leavers into community mental health services.

Ms Hall added: “We urge the mayor to work with the service and HM Prisons and Probation to deliver a much more ambitious recruitment and retention strategy.

“A properly resourced and well-run probation service is one of the most effective tools we have to reduce crime.

“We hope recommendations are implemented to unleash the full potential of recent reforms.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Photo: Getty

An MoJ spokesperson said: “We’ve taken rapid action to improve the performance of the London Probation Service including bringing in extra staff and deploying expert teams to prevent reoffending.

“We are investing an extra £155 million into the Probation Service every year and recruiting thousands more officers, with an increasing proportion from ethnic minority backgrounds.”

Commenting on the Zara Aleena case, prisons and probation minister Damian Hinds said: “This was a despicable crime and I apologise unreservedly to Zara Aleena’s family for the unacceptable failings in this case.

“We are taking immediate steps to address the serious issues raised by the Jordan McSweeney and Damien Bendall cases.

“This includes mandatory training to improve risk assessments, implementing new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders and we have taken disciplinary action where appropriate.”

Zara Aleena. Credit: Met Police

Sadiq Khan said: “My thoughts are with Zara’s family and loved ones on this extremely difficult day.

“This is a damning report which makes clear that, even before Zara’s brutal murder, McSweeney was a dangerous, prolific and violent predator who should never have been left at liberty to take the life of an innocent young woman.

“The Probation Service has failed in this case and this failure is symptomatic of wider issues after 13 years of chaotic government policies and cuts that must be addressed immediately.

“This must never be allowed to happen again. Women and girls have the right to be safe and to feel safe – whatever the time of day and wherever they are.

“But for these failings, Zara would still be here and her loved ones would not have to bear the burden of a life without her. It is vital that we ensure no other family has to endure what Zara’s family have had to and are going through.”

London’s victims’ commissioner Claire Waxman said: “My thoughts today are with Zara Aleena’s family and loved ones.

“This is a damning review which highlights a litany of errors and oversights that – had they not occurred – may have changed the course of events that led to Zara’s brutal murder. It paints a clear picture of a disjointed system that is struggling to properly assess risks and protect the public.

“There was a near total failure to adequately risk-assess McSweeney, and no holistic approach taken to look at his past. This, combined with a failure to recall him on time, left him free to terrorise women and ultimately murder Zara that night.

“These are truly tragic circumstances, and reflect a justice system that is on its knees.

“Excessive workloads, low pay, and low morale have led to a huge shortage of staff in probation and government must address these failings if they want to keep the public safe.”